I’ve been to The Met only one other time in my life…many, many years ago. So, one of the wonderful benefits of having a show with Elizabeth Robbins at the Highlands Art Gallery in Lambertville, NJ was using that opportunity to visit The Met…all made possible by Cheryl Macdowall, gallery owner, and the great painter, Kenn Backhaus, performing flawlessly as our New York taxi driver. He had just the right amount of New York aggression, unhesitatingly claiming his space without experiencing the angry, blaring horns of irritated drivers or being exposed to an unpleasant digit.
Following the show opening, Kenn, Cheryl, Elizabeth, Marcia and I enthusiastically set out for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the great art museums of the world. We excitedly anticipated an inspiring day together. It’s a trip my wife, Marcia, and I most likely would have never made on our own, so we welcomed the opportunity. (Click images to enlarge)
All of us decided to divide our time between the American and European Wings of the museum, with particular interest on the works of John Singer Sargent, and 19th and 20th Century European paintings. The museum map was most confusing, but with some help we eventually arrived at our desired destination. I’ll let Kenn explain what happened next: “The five of us made our way to the first destination, the American Wing. We entered the first room and for about three minutes we calmly viewed the first paintings until the anxieties of needing that Sargent fix hit most of us. After that, it was like watching ants scatter at a picnic site. The group dismantled and set out in different directions, and for all good reasons. When artists are in the midst of many great works the sense of togetherness goes out the window…each to our sited favorites we go!”
“Jersey” Cheryl, as I love to call her, had a few must sees of her own…Sargent being among her favorites. “I marveled at Sargent’s brushwork and paint handling as he created the illusion of fabric folds and highlights in the satin and velvet gowns, along with beading, embroidery and lace”, she said.
When we all stood before Sargent’s, “The Hermit”, full of dappled light and broken color, with a barely visible male figure and deer, we almost with one voice exclaimed that it reminded us of Quang Ho’s recent work. And then, before Sargent’s iconic, “Madame X”, Cheryl captured Liz’s beautiful profile. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze, another must see, will take your breath away. The scale, the emotion, the heroism, and quality of this painting…well, what can I say?
Cheryl found it interesting to observe Kenn, Liz, and I as we toured the museum. “Tagging along with Kenn is like attending an art class. He finds something unique and positive about every painting, regardless of style, whether it be brushwork, composition, or what ever. Being with Elizabeth was quite different. She would gravitate to paintings that fascinated her…view them up close, further away, then sit and study them a while. John, on the other hand was fascinated with detail in landscapes…how the deceased masters created such detail, even in the smallest format.”
Elizabeth last visited the museum as a little girl, she felt small in such a large space, now at 57 she still felt small…this time in relationship to all the great paintings that have been done by so many great artists. “Some of my favorites were the two large Monet’s that hung side-by-side. Probably 30 by 40s, framed with very intricate gold ornate frames. That size has always intimidated me but standing back and seeing those two paintings side-by-side gave me inspiration to go home and go big. One other painting stood out to all of us, I think, it was a painting by Henri Regnault titled “Salome”…a dark-haired beauty against an incredible yellow background with a shimmering skirt that took our breath away. Up close, the skirt was nothing but blobs of paint with no organization whatsoever but when you stood back the whole skirt shimmered and was mind-boggling in its beauty. The sheerness of it, where you could see her leg underneath, yet still feel the gold and the glimmer of the skirt, was inspiring. What I didn’t know was that he was just 26 years old when he painted this masterpiece and tragically died one year later. What a testament to his talent and contribution to the art world that inspires us yet today.”
I think we all felt small, humbled, and in awe among such great works of art…even totally inept.
At least I did.
Before leaving the American Wing, Kenn and I stood in amazement before “A Rose”, by Thomas Anshutz…an exquisite painting by anyone’s reckoning. The use of green, red’s complement, was just beautiful in its use. It’s interesting being with Kenn, he’s interested in everything, and is always thinking of his students. His many closeup photos were always taken with an interest in learning but always having something that will be helpful to others. I loved being with him because he is a wealth of knowledge, always willing to share.
The European Wing is a treasure trove of the incredible. I was set on discovering as many Corot paintings as possible, Cheryl wanted to see “The Horse Fair” by Rosa Bonheur, a painting, she points out, Rosa painted while wearing men’s clothes so she wouldn’t stand out in what was at that time, “A Man’s World”.
Kenn…well, he wanted to see it all. I believe he expresses this sentiment beautifully: “It’s too difficult to chose a favorite because each one that you may be attracted to can obviously be for a different reason from the last attraction. A visit to The Met for me is like having doors opened in my mind, some that I may have opened before, others that I might have peeked in but really hadn’t entered and others, completely new doors, undiscovered. In earlier years of my career, when visiting museums such as The Met, I found my mind scattered just trying to take it all in. I would usually return with images etched in my mind but no real discoveries or findings as a result. Now, I approach the opportunity with goals in mind, looking for the clues and answers that we all seek as artists with brush and eye. As for the aspiring painter it’s all there on the surface and beneath the surface of a multitude of canvases…the struggles of observation, the temptations of giving into defeat, the rewards of success.”
Standing in front of Rosa Bonheur’s “The Horse Fair” will make an artist break every brush they own and even some friend’s brushes also.
Entering the European Wing, we were all stopped in our tracks before the beautiful painting “Salome” by Henri Regnault…magical. Kenn has seen it many times and tells us, “Painted around 1870 and first shown at the Salon of 1870, the painting, for those who aren’t familiar with the piece, has a very unusual color scheme of various yellows hues. You rarely see a figurative painting with yellow used as an overall harmony. When entering the room where it’s displayed, you are immediately attracted to its location and the transfixing takes place…I couldn’t tell you what else hangs in that room or even the rooms before or after. It has a power over one’s eyes and mind. First time seeing it, not evening knowing of the story behind the painting, it was just amazing, and now each time I have returned to the Met I need to get my “Salome” fix.”
And…there was so much more, some of which I will share with you here. I was somewhat disappointed with my Corot experience; I don’t know if the paintings needed cleaning or the lighting was less than ideal, but most paintings seemed dark, lacking the exquisite beauty and sensitivity to which I am attracted.
My favorite art movement, known as the Naturalists, occurred simultaneously with Impressionism. Here are some of my favorites artists from that period.
After five hours, enjoying a little lunch, and as Kenn says…”Our eyes looking like those of a doe caught in the headlights, our minds filled and spilling out of the ears, we were saved by the guard telling everyone it was closing time! Thank God, or we would have succumbed to visceral overload. As we found ourselves completely lost again we just followed the crowds until we were standing on the steps of the grand entryway facing 5th Avenue.”
Leaving the museum we had a very enjoyable, and expensive dinner at a nearby restaurant. A relaxing dinner with a glass of wine gave us all a chance to reconnect, revisit, and share our afternoon discoveries and adventures with one another. As “Jersey” Cheryl concluded, “Our visit to the Met was a once-in-a-life-time experience that I will never forget. It was the perfect way to unwind, get inspired and spend quality time with artist friends after the busy opening weekend. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
As for my wife, Marcia, she enjoyed all the art and thoroughly enjoyed the company. “It was a really nice day”, she said.
Next time: A day with Kenn Backhaus
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